A ferocious ‘war’ erupted in remote outback Australia in 1983. Shearers were on strike. ‘Scab’ shearers had to be protected against invading mobs of unionists. In scattered and isolated woolsheds sheds the question was: should sheep-shearers be allowed to use ‘wide combs’?
Shearers got paid per hundred sheep, not by the hour or the day, so the opportunity to get a bigger tally with the wide comb was something to be welcomed – one would think. Indeed, that was certainly the case. But fanatical opposing opinion could not easily be overcome. It was ‘un-Australian’ to even think about it. But equally, it was ‘un-Australian’ NOT to be allowed a free choice to use whatever equipment did the job best.
The shearing workforce had always been a rambunctious, contrary lot. The work was punishingly strenuous as well as highly skilled. Infectious group camaraderie governed its cult of ‘mateship’. Many different types gravitated into shearing. At one end were staunch unionists preaching ‘mateship’ and class solidarity. At the other end self-improving moneymakers accumulated funds get started as farmers.
The oldest and most powerful trade union in the nation’s history stood behind the strike. The Australian Workers Union, known wide and far by its acronym ‘the AWU’, had risen in the 1890s. Ruthlessly efficient at grass roots organiser, God help any shearer trying to occupy a stand without an AWU ticket. And God help any greedy upstart questioning AWU wisdom on industrial matters.